The first references to nature or physis in Athens* were made by those supporting aristocratic partisans against their perception of a rigid democratic establishment in the 420s BCE. Nomos was considered the embodiment of popular sovereignty. Before physis, “to eon” or just “that which is” or easier “the fact” was opposed to nomos. The sophists chiefly served–for a fee–the aristocratic youth whose parents’ wealth and good birth had ceased to give them the power to which they thought they should be entitled. The distinction the sophists offer between physis and nomos justifies the aristocratic claim against entrenched democratic interests.
Physis was associated with one’s birth, so it allowed the aristocrats to associate their own power with their birth, and thus with physis. The aristocrats thought that by virtue of their birth they had a claim to rule. The sophists give them the language of physis to justify this claim through birth, which points to ways that the reference to physis in its beginnings was in the service of a kind of eugenics, those of better birth were those whose rule was more natural. Nature itself was of those who were better born. To be better born was to be on the side of nature. From that claim, the oligarchic interests take up the sophistic view that physis is just what is against the nomos or convention that changes and is thus without ground–a charge familiar to us as a criticism of democratic approaches to justice from Plato. If those who are better born whose claim to rule is natural, and returning to the ancient customs wherein the well-born ruled, then nature is just what had always been, and the changes wrought by the increasingly democratic regimes were suspect. Nature gets put on the side of “things remaining the same,” and convention on the side of constant change and radical disruptive power of the commoners. The sophists introduce arguments that further put physis on the side of intelligence against wealth. Those who newly make wealth still do not have the intelligence that comes with being well-born.
In some ways Walton really captures the sense in which the point of philosophy is to engage in a life of questioning and examining and dialectically following the conversation where it leads. There are insights into Plato and into philosophy to be found here. It isn't a substitute for reading Plato's Republic, but perhaps the novel--like good public philosophy--could be an on-ramp.
Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.
My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more
Jetlagged and underslept, I went out early this morning into Athens and ran from our flat around the Acropolis and back. The Acropolis was empty, just the way I always think of it as a ruin, standing by itself, the lack of tourists giving the suggestion that the gods might still hover around. Four years ago when I was here I wondered about whether the religious sense of the space could be experienced if one were alone. It certainly does not feel as if it can be when overwhelmed by selfie-stick wielding tourists.
As we were approaching the top of the Acropolis, my colleague from Antioch Lew Cassity pointed out that the Greek Doric columns were asymmetrical, for two reasons. One reason was that they looked more energetic that way. The second was that if they were asymmetrical they would look uneven from a distance. My other co-traveler and colleague at Earlham College Kevin Miles raised the Protagoraean question about the reality of the appearance. Why suppose the appearance from a distance is less real, less how it appears, than the up close appearance of the asymmetry of the columns? Why think the columns really are asymmetrical than think they really are symmetrical because they appear so from farther? Read more
Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good. Read more
On New Year’s Day, I visited my Uncle Jon in Chicago. He is a member of JPUSA, a Christian commune in Uptown. He’s a feminist progressive Christian who is more aware of his white male privilege than any Christian man I know, so it’s refreshing to spend time with him. He was telling us about his changing views on evangelism. He described a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, “dive bombing.” “Dive bombing” is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours. This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending. And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong. So it’s basically gaslighting evangelism. Read more
At HASTAC2015 at Michigan State in May, then-soon-to-be-new Dean of College of Arts and Letters at MSU, Chris Long, and I hatched a plan to have my students engage his book, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2014). Students would read the book online and engage the digital platform Cambridge set up to encourage a living relationship to the text. As a follow up and to enhance the dialogical engagement, Long agreed to videoconference into class. This week, we did it. Read more
Yesterday was our anniversary and our last full day in Nafplio. Today we are off to Athens for two days, where we hope to see Aristotle’s Lyceum, which has only recently opened, and the National Archaeological Museum. On Saturday, we took our last excursion in the Peloponnese, this time to Epidauros which has the largest and best preserved Greek theater. Read more
In my last post I was singing the praises of the local host and guide over a guidebook. Fittingly, I suppose, I spent the rest of the day working on the debate Aristotle stages in the Politics between those who support the rule of law and those who would advocate the rule of human beings. Read more